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Ed Frauenheim

Staff Writer, CNET

The ability of the United States to attract highly trained foreign nationals will be important to overcome both temporary and long-term shortages in certain occupations, according to a new study by a group that backs guest-worker visas.>

The report, released Tuesday, was commissioned by Compete America, a group that has called for expanding the controversial H-1B visa program.

“At the same time that the U.S. production of a highly educated work force is slowing down, American companies must compete against firms from countries that are rapidly increasing their own pools of highly educated workers,” Sandra Boyd, chairwoman of Compete America, said in a statement Tuesday. “The evidence clearly points to the need for increasing access to highly educated foreign nationals to perform specialized jobs here in the United States.”

The study cited National Science Foundation statistics showing that in 1975, the United States ranked third among countries in the number of people aged 18 to 24 who were earning science and engineering degrees, but in 2004 the United States ranked 17th.

Not everyone, though, agrees with the notion that the United States faces shortfalls of science and engineering workers. A study earlier this year from research organization Rand said: “Despite recurring concerns about potential shortages of (scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics) personnel in the U.S. work force, particularly in engineering and information technology, we did not find evidence that such shortages have existed, at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon.”

H-1B visas have been at the heart of the debate over worker shortages for years. The visas allow skilled foreign workers to come to the United States for up to six years, and historically many of them have been employed by technology companies. The annual cap of 65,000 new H-1B visas for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 was reached that very day.

Compete America, which includes corporations, universities and trade associations, has called for exempting foreign students who receive advanced degrees from U.S. universities from the H-1B cap.

But technology-worker advocates are critical of the H-1B program. They say employers have used the visas in large part to undercut the wages of American techies rather than to make up for a labor shortage.

The new study from Compete America states: “There is no clear evidence that highly educated foreign workers displace native workers in comparable occupations.”

The study, conducted by scholars from the Hudson Institute, also said: “the H-1B program continues to be quite flexible in addressing employer needs of a temporary nature (the original intent of the program) while enabling transition to permanent-resident status when labor demand simply cannot be met by the indigenous work force for the foreseeable future.”